English is quite a language. According to Wikipedia it’s predominantly a West Germanic language brought to Britain by Germanic invaders. When William the Conqueror arrived in the 11th century he brought Norman French to the Royal courts. From there, it was influenced further by Latin and ancient Greek. That’s where the phrase about not understanding must have originated; “It’s all Greek to me!”
Seriously though, English has borrowed liberally from a large number of tongues and for this week’s column, I set about finding words that we think belong to us, and do, but were purloined (a great word meaning taken) from many others.
A bumper sticker says it best: English is a language that lurks in dark alleys, beats up on other languages and rifles through their pockets for spare vocabulary!
Did you know that the word tycoon comes from the Japanese word taikun meaning great lord? From the Indian subcontinent comes the bungalow (a house) that might be located in the jungle where you go after changing out of your pajamas for khaki so you may pursue the thugs that stole your loot.
Words of Arabian origin include mattress and sofa, great to have in the harem where the girls work on their algebra, enjoying sherbet. Other words in common use include assassin, tariff and the basis for all mathematics, zero!
The Dutch donated the words booze (yay), cookie (oreo?) and cruise (double yay!), yacht (inflatable), Iceberg (took care of the yacht) and measles (where you see spots before your eyes when you look in a mirror).
From Africa come the words cola! Coca came later. The voodoo that you do is just mumbo jumbo, but when you attend the jambouree you can tell the zombie about it. So take your chimpanzee and banana and ride into the sunset on a zebra!
If you’ve wondered where glitch came from we can thank German for glitschen and Yiddish for glitshen. It entered our vocabulary courtesy of some American astronauts who described a spike in electrical current as a glitch!
Contributed from Italian we can have artisans enjoy their cartoons from the gallery or the balcony of the villa, or create their graffiti on the dome.
The Spanish contributed the macho guerrilla, but I suspect most would rather enjoy the vanilla flavoured cigar down on the ranch where I can siesta without worrying about the hurricane!
From the Chinese we’ve learned feng shui and kung fu, learned to put ketchup on our tofu, and strain our tea through silk.
So when we talk about English we have to appreciate that much of it was appropriated from many languages even beyond the major tongues such as tagalog which contributed boodock and yo-yo, ukelele from Hawaiian, meaning leaping flea. And speaking of leaping flea did you know that the word corgi is “dwarf dog” in Welsh? You did? Well, kudos to you, and that’s also Greek to me!
Shallom and aloha. See you next week.
* Heinz 57 is a shortened form of a historical advertising slogan “57 Varieties” by the H. J. Heinz Company located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It has come to mean anything that is made from a large number of parts or origins.